In the chapter of my novel, The Tedescos, titled “Soul Food,” the family attends church on Mother’s Day with their good friends, The Robertses. After the service, the Tedesco Clan is invited to attend a meal in the church fellowship hall. The men and boys prepared the meal they will serve to the mothers to honor them. Much of the food the Tedescos encounter is familiar, but one dish in particular initiates a conversation between Joe Jr. and Tabitha and Tonya Roberts and results in the explanation of ‘la cucina povera.’
The Italian phrase literally means the poor kitchen, and it is a style of cooking familiar among the lower classes (think peasants) of a particular society. Often, peasants had to cook with whatever they had on hand whether it came from the kitchen or the farm. The ‘poor kitchen’ can be found in every society. The great thing about this concept is that some really delicious recipes emerged from the simple, high-quality ingredients that were available.
Attempting to cook in the style of ‘la cucina povera’ may earn you a laugh especially from an older person who lived through the war in Italy. They may refuse to acknowledge ‘the poor kitchen’ style and argue that it was simply the preparation of the food they had on hand. Americans, with all their varied food choices and easy access to said food, have a tendency to romanticize a style of cooking that was a part of basic survival. Still, I can think of several recipes in which my family indulges that found their way into my writing because of my love to feed people whether real or imagined. Many cookbooks featuring this style of food have been published, and I highly recommend you try one or two meals from them if you’ve never encountered peasant cooking.
Beans and cornbread, cabbage and noodles, and soup made from some combination of vegetables are the types of peasant food I grew up with. I never knew that what we ate was considered to be from ‘the poor kitchen’ because the adults who prepared it for me cooked with love and made everything taste wonderful. Delicious, simple food is usually the tastiest, and in the end, that’s really what it’s all about. What does your family enjoy from ‘la cucina povera?’